Avaaz?

26 02 2011

Sleepily browsing the world wide web this morning when a mysterious by-line caught my eye:

“You should message me if you can give me some intelligent feedback on… www.Avaaz.org

My curiousity having been sufficiently aroused by the fact that I had never heard of this website, I cautiously typed it into Google to find out what it could be about. What I discovered was exactly the type of website I have been looking for to write a post about for the past few months, ever since the online conversations sparked ongoing protests across North Africa and the Middle East.

Avaaz – which means “voice” in several major language groups around the world, is an online forum where registered users can take actions including signing petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions, emailing, and lobbying governments, towards a large range of issues. Their strength comes in numbers, and the fact that they focus on the things they agree on. Avaaz seems to garner strength from individualism, and rather than trying to find consensus about the specifics of any one issue, each member decides individually where to focus their efforts and whether they will participate or not in any given campaign or movement.

The result is phenomenal – for example perhaps not everyone shares the same view points on gay marriage or whether being gay is something you choose or something you are born with, but when almost half a million people sign a petition to stop the passing of a bill which would sentence gay Ugandans to death, suddenly you see that there are over-arching human rights concerns which many agree on.

Some of the descriptions of Avaaz.org listed on the site include:

“Avaaz is closing the gap between the world we have and the world we want, one campaign at a time.”

…and…

A transnational community that is more democratic, and could be more effective, than the United Nations.”

— Suddeutsche Zeitung

…and…

Avaaz is a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.”

While Avaaz is only a few years old (2007), it has already had a major impact internationally in forums such as climate change, human rights, the international sex trade, emergency response, state corruption, protecting natural resources, and the list goes on… Some of Avaaz’s concrete achievements are listed below:

*****

  • a drive for a “million-signature Citizen’s Initiative in the EU” for a moratorium and independent testing and regulation of Genetically Modified crops.
  • almost $700,000 raised for an intensive, long-term campaign to fight the “rape trade”–the sexual enslavement of women and girls around the world
  • strong backing for indigenous communities “petitioning Chevron’s new CEO to clean up his company’s toxic legacy” in the Amazon.
  • support for a democratic resolution to the January 2008 election crisis in Kenya — tens of thousands of Avaaz members asked their foreign ministers to refuse to recognize any President until Kofi Annan’s negations could produce an acceptable compromise.
  • worldwide pressure for democratic rights in Pakistan during the November 2007 crisis, and an ad campaign in Pakistan calling for President Musharraf to end the state of emergency.
  • a global call for a WTO ruling to ban subsidies for dangerous corporate overfishing of the world’s oceans, in which Avaaz members sent tens of thousands of messages to their trade ministers.
  • an effort to increase transparency in the UN’s selection of the next High Commissioner for Human Rights that “made international headlines through a blog” and a fake job advertisement in The Economist.
  • a petition, rally, and protest video supporting efforts to oust Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank after the May 2007 corruption scandal
  • a call for regional governments to increase aid donations to help Mexico cope with flooding in November 2007
  • co-hosting, with Chatham House, David Miliband’s first speech as UK Foreign Secretary — and bringing him questions from Avaaz members around the world.

*****

I plan to join Avaaz and dig a little deeper into their campaigning process over the next few weeks. I’m sure that the mass appeal of being able to have a real impact on international issues will bring Avaaz.org more and more to the centre stage of how the internet can be used to have a real impact on the real world.

– Sarah Topps

(I’d also like to say thanks to Arteri, who originally directed my interest towards this site.)





7 Things I Never Travel Without

10 02 2011

As an event and trip coordinator, and a frequent traveler in my personal time – both clients and friends often ask me: What should I pack?It’s the age-old traveling question, and I have often found it makes the world of difference in the quality of my trip.

To be honest, it really depends on the trip – how long is it?, where will you go?, who will you go with?, do you need fancy clothes?, how will you get there?, where will you stay?, what activities will you be doing? etc. I could go on and on about the various factors that come into play when I am deciding what to bring. (Look out for upcoming posts as I begin my quest for one-bag international travel starting with a trip to Taiwan in April.)

However, if I have to give a short answer, I always love the quip about the necessary “Big 3” my parents used when we traveled: “Tickets, passport, money. Everything else you can buy, borrow, or make do without.”

While I truly believe this motto, and have followed it to the letter before in extreme circumstances, there are several other items which make my “necessities” list on (almost) every trip these days, rounding out to a nice 10.

1. Good walking shoes & SmartWool socks

Okay, so technically this one is two things, but it’s not like you would use one without the other, right? After years of walking in many kilometres, in many conditions, all around the world, I have come to the conclusion that I absolutely LOVE SmartWool socks. They are comfortable, they don’t smell, they take YEARS to wear out, their colours hide dirt well, they look good on everyone, and they prevent blisters! To learn more about the science behind these awesome socks, they made us a pretty website!

2. Pencil and notebook

Same deal as above… paper is pretty useless unless you’re using it for fire starter in the woods (and I think open fires are illegal in most wooded places now anyways). Great for remembering details such as addresses or opening hours, for learning words of the local language (a great opener for talking to locals) and for detailing your adventures in.

3. Sunscreen

This brings us to one of my absolute all-time favourite travel stories, and perhaps the best one to illustrate my parents unique manner of raising me to be the independent, responsible and interesting human being (I hope ) that I am today.

When I was 17 years old, and full of young restlessness I used to spend hours and hours (actually who am I kidding, I still do) on airline websites, trying to find the best travel deals to my dream destinations. One night, my parents had asked me to babysit my younger brother while they went out for dinner and a show. After my brother had gone to bed, I was on the computer, chatting with some friends from Australia and skimming my usual travel sites. Suddenly, I spied an incredibly good deal for a flight to Brisbane from Vancouver… after doing about, oh… maybe 3 minutes of intense cost research and asking my friends if the weather was nice, and whether they thought I could get a job there, I had bought a plane ticket. For the next morning. To Australia.

By the time my parents got home, later that night, I was halfway through packing for my spontaneous 3 month trip down under. My Mum took one glance in my room, asked me where I was going, stared at me for a moment after my reply and then shook her head and went to bed. The next morning, around 6 a.m. she padded back through to my room in her slippers and asked if I was serious. I held up my bag in one hand and my plane ticket in the other, then cheekily asked if she could give me a ride to the airport in an hour. She thought about it for a second, nodded, and then padded to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.

An hour later, we were driving to the airport and we were chatting about mundane things when she suddenly seemed to realize that I was actually planning to spend the next three months in Australia. She turned to me abruptly and said:

“So you’re really going to Australia today?”

“Well, yes, although I won’t get there until tomorrow. I’ll call when the time difference isn’t too bad.”

“Did you pack sunscreen?”

“Uhhh… no?”

“There should be a bottle under the seat. You can take that one.”

I dug it out and tucked it into the top pocket of my bag. We drove the rest of the way to the airport in that comfortable silence that only comes from everyone feeling that all that is needed has been said. I think it officially marked the moment in my life where I felt like an adult in my parents’ eyes. And I still remember to pack sunscreen, every time.

4. Digital Camera

I have found over time that I never remember my trips as well if I don’t have pictures to spur the memories. Take pictures! Take LOTS of pictures. Take pictures of new friends, old friends, yourself with friends, yourself alone, local quirks, colourful signs, famous locations, not-so-famous-but-just-as-cool locations, your favourite dish, your favourite camel… you name it! If you’re motivated enough, you can even make yourself a scrapbook when you get home. (Just don’t force your poor friends to sit through an 800-picture slide show… really, after 50 pictures, no one cares.)

I currently own one digital SLR; the Canon Rebel T2i (EOS 550D outside the US, but I like the flashier name… no pun intended) which I love for it’s smaller grip – perfect for my female hands, and a smaller Canon Powershot from a few years ago when it had a slimmer design.

5. Universal Plug Adapter

Really? You want an explanation? Just get one. You can thank me later…

6. Goody’s Ouchless Hair Elastics

Weirdly useful… and not just for putting hair into a ponytail.

These amazingly durable, colourful bands are perfect for securing things together (bunches of pens, flowers, rolls of bills, you name it!) or for hanging things. As hair elastics go, they are very comfortable since they don’t have the traditional metal bar holding the elastic together which pulls your hair out when you remove it. They come in a great variety of colours, last forever and are super cheap and easy to find (any major drugstore will carry them). I find them so useful that I often have an extra one on my key chain or in my bag – in fact, I’m wearing one on my wrist right now!

7. MP3/USB player

Again, you can buy them in any electronics store or major drugstore – cheap, not flashy, easily concealed, good for storing digital pictures or e-versions of important documents. Wear it around your neck under your shirt on a cord necklace for easy but secure access to your music. The one I use is similar to this one. Get as much memory as you can find/afford… even your favourite songs get old after you’ve been on the same bus for 18 hours.

And of course – don’t forget your tickets, passport or money!

– Sarah Topps (2011)





CUSO-VSO celebrates 50 years!

10 11 2010

Since 1961, more than 15 000 volunteers have worked overseas for CUSO-VSO, one of the largest international development organizations in North America that works through volunteers. Now 50 years later, they have some major clout in the field.

Suitably impressed, I looked for a way that I could volunteer with them myself, and have just been invited to work at their 50 year celebration event!

The main kickoff event is taking place in Vancouver, Canada at the University of British Columbia on December 4th and 5th. The theme for the event is: “Celebrating the international volunteer – yesterday, today and tomorrow”.

Registration is $50, and there are still spots open if anyone is interested. Hope to see you there!

– Sarah Topps





How to Make Money and Change the World

1 12 2009

Recently a good friend of mine and his family heard that I had never experienced an American Thanksgiving and were thoughtful enough to invite me down to visit with them for the weekend. Needless to say, the meal was decadent, and both the conversation and the wine were sparkling. [An extended thank you to the Vitek family!]

While I was down in the USA, my friend took me to meet some friends of his for a night out in small-town America. We visited a local bar, ate bagels slathered in cheese and spicy meats and chatted about our various university degrees and jobs. One of his friends, Tsewang, was a young woman from Nepal who I chatted with for an hour or so about international development and social entrepreneurship (two of my favourite topics!) as well as some less cumbersome subjects. At one point near the end of our conversation, I mentioned to her that I was hoping to start a pilot project for solar water disinfection (SODIS) in Angola next year, and she told me that, being from Canada, I ought to look up an organization called Dream Now“.

After returning from the weekend, I had all but forgotten about her wonderful suggestion when I stumbled onto their website this afternoon. Reading descriptions about how they literally built blanket forts in various rooms across the country in order to facilitate comfortable discussion, I was absolutely intrigued. Ravenous for more of this truly out-of-the-box approach, I dug a little deeper on their website and discovered this jewel of a bookHow to Make Money and Change the World

Not only was it one of the most helpful and innovative books I have read on the subject of finding a job in our generation – it was free! Beautifully designed and available online for download, and redistribution, I thought – well! that’s my Christmas shopping done for every friend I have who’s about to graduate from international development! (On a fair note, being a student, I otherwise probably was just going to wish them Merry Christmas on their facebook walls or twitter, so this is quite the improvement as far as free gifts go...)

Occupation: Change the World

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in working for positive change – either in international development, or other fields of social change.

– Sarah Topps





Plumpynut: More revolutionary than sliced bread

19 11 2009

Every year 10.6 Million kids die before their 5th birthday. Malnutrition accounts for about half of that number. Finally, we may have a solution which addresses both caloric and micronutrient deficient diets: Plumpy’nut.

The old adage about being able to live off of only beer and peanut butter is almost true in this case, although since we’re talking about kids – it’s peanut butter and powdered milk. The mix also includes powdered sugar and several vitamin supplements including zinc, Vitamin A and E, iron and protein. It can add an astounding 1kg (2.2 lbs) per week to a hungry child’s weight.

CBS News ran a special on it back in 2008 but unfortunately WordPress does not support their embedded video.

It’s been used successfully in Niger by Medecins Sans Frontiers and is now being recommended by UNICEF for use across Africa and the world.

Plumpy’nut does not need to be cooked, or refrigerated, or boiled, it does not need to be mixed with water (eliminating potential contamination as has happened with powdered milk formulas), it has no parts which could be a choking hazard, it comes pre-packaged in an ideal amount, it can be eaten directly out of the packaging; making it an ideal meal for undernourished children in the developing world who may not have access to electricity or safe drinking water.

The following YouTube clip is an excerpt piece by Anderson Cooper from the longer CBS video I’ve referenced above.

– Sarah Topps





Seawater rising? Or the riverbeds sinking!

22 09 2009

Climate change has become a big issue in recent decades, and one of the major indicators that many people point to as a worrying potential problem is the rise in sea levels globally. There are island nations buying up land in foreign countries, people moving further inland, worse floods every year from tropical storms and hurricanes – yet perhaps an even more worrying problem is that the land itself is SINKING!

Scientists in the well-known and respected journal “Nature Geoscience” have recently published an article on the impact of human activities on the land drop towards sea level in many deltas worldwide. This closure towards the water, they claim, is far greater than the rise in sea level faced by the same inhabitants. Their abstract, below, will give a quick glimpse into the problem:

Many of the world’s largest deltas are densely populated and heavily farmed. Yet many of their inhabitants are becoming increasingly vulnerable to flooding and conversions of their land to open ocean. The vulnerability is a result of sediment compaction from the removal of oil, gas and water from the delta’s underlying sediments, the trapping of sediment in reservoirs upstream and floodplain engineering in combination with rising global sea level. Here we present an assessment of 33 deltas chosen to represent the world’s deltas. We find that in the past decade, 85% of the deltas experienced severe flooding, resulting in the temporary submergence of 260,000 km2. We conservatively estimate that the delta surface area vulnerable to flooding could increase by 50% under the current projected values for sea-level rise in the twenty-first century. This figure could increase if the capture of sediment upstream persists and continues to prevent the growth and buffering of the deltas.”

Taken from: http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/ngeo629.html

detailed_chao-phraya

Chao Phraya River Basin

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Chao Phraya, (see image above) the river which flows through Bangkok is one of the worst affected – parts of the delta have sunk 15cm (six inches)! Compare this to the global rate of sea level rise due to climate change at only 1.8-3.0mm per year – nearly a tenfold difference!

Scientists estimate that the area of land vulnerable to flooding will increase by about 50% in the next 40 years due to a combination of climate change causing sea levels to rise and land sinking due to human causes.

“This study shows there are a host of human-induced factors that already cause deltas to sink much more rapidly than could be explained by sea level alone.” Journal Geoscience Article

The researchers report that the flow of sediment down to the Chao Phraya delta has been almost entirely blocked, due to  irrigation, damming the river, and directing the main flow through just a few channels. In rivers with no dams or man-made controls, the sediment would pass down the river and add to the height of the land, a process known as aggradation. (see image below) Now, the sediment can’t reach many delta areas. The further extraction of water and gas for irrigation, drinking, and industry further compacts the land.

Aggradation

As reported in the BBC yesterday, “Rivers affected include the Colorado, Nile, Pearl, Rhone and Yangtze. Of the 33 major deltas studied, 24 were found to be sinking. About half a billion people live in these regions…

THE HIGH-RISK LIST
Deltas with “virtually no aggradation (supply of sediment) and/or very high accelerated compaction”
Chao Phraya, Thailand
Colorado, Mexico
Krishna, India
Nile, Egypt
Pearl, China
Po, Italy
Rhone, France
Sao Francisco, Brazil
Tone, Japan
Yangtze, China
Yellow, China

As the ground falls and sea level rises, people become more vulnerable to inundation during storms.
Every year, about 10 million people are being affected by storm surges,” said Irina Overeem, another of the study team from the University of Colorado.

So should we be worrying about the inevitable rise in sea levels? Or more focused on the major impacts we are still having on these sinking river deltas, which around the world are home to almost half a billion human beings?

– Sarah Topps





A Road Map to World Harmony

4 08 2009

I always have trouble when people ask me to explain succintly what I am learning from my degree (International Development Studies) and why I am taking classes in so many different areas. Last year I had made a rough diagram which attempted to demonstrate how all the areas were interconnected – i.e. agriculture is affected by environment, women’s rights are affected by religion, modern-day governments are affected by political geography, which in turn is affected by history etc.

Areas of Study - Interconnections

LANG = language, EDUC = education, NUTR = Nutrition, RELG = Religion, AGRI = agriculture, GEOG = geography, ECON = economics/economy, ENVIR = environment

*since making this diagram, I have added a few more areas to my degree, and there are certainly more which could be connected, these are just my chosen areas of focus.

More recently, Toyota has released an interesting interactive website showing the same idea as shown above, but with suggestions on how we can improve on the problems which face the world, including energy, education, health and coexistence – just to mention a few.

I thought about trying to duplicate it on here somehow, but it’s probably best to just explore it yourself.

– Sarah Topps








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